With a shake of his dreadlocks, Hurkey motioned for me to sit down across from him at the table. What do you want? he asked.

I want to know, whats the future of New Orleans?

He handed me a black cloth, knotted at the top. Hold this in your hands, he said.

This isnt about me, I said. Just the city.

Hold it in your hands, and feel it, Hurkey instructed. There were a number of items bound in the cloth, but I couldnt distinguish what they were. OK, open the knot, he said, and let everything fall on the table.

Out tumbled a feather, a die, a few cowry shells and about a dozen chicken bones, worn smooth.

This is voodoo? I asked.

Youd better believe it, he said.

"  "  "

The following day, in a restaurant about a mile away, I put the same question about the future of the city to J. Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.

There are two stories in New Orleans, he said. The first is about rebuilding the post-World War II neighborhoods and the failures of government, from the federal to the local level, to help people. The mainstream media has been following that story closely. And it will take years for the neighborhoods outside the core of the city to come back.

The other story is about travel and tourism. The fact is that the New Orleans most people love -- the French Quarter, the Garden District, other neighborhoods along the river  --  is intact and ready. But you have to be realistic. When you have an event the magnitude of Katrina, visitors dont automatically reappear. And for a number of months after Katrina it was not a good time to visit anywhere in New Orleans.

Conversation paused for a moment as a bowl of alligator soup was set in front of Perry. He took a sip, gave a slight nod, and picked up where he had left off. Travel and tourism is a perception-driven business, and for months after we were ready for visitors, people were still seeing the television file footage of the disaster.

If it will take years for the residential areas to recover, I asked, wont those images of destruction be shown for years? If travel and tourism is built on perception, wont tourisms recovery be inextricably linked to the recovery of the rest of the city?

I believe theres a four-step transition period that will change those perceptions and bring people back to New Orleans sooner, Perry said. The first step happened with Mardi Gras and Jazz & Heritage Fest. Thousands of people came here and found they could have a good time in New Orleans.

The second step was when the American Librarians Association had their convention here in June. It was a success on every level. The librarians had a great time, and the images of the refurbished convention center ... replaced the images of the center from just after the storm.

The third step?

The third step is happening right now -- the one-year anniversary of Katrina. More than 1,000 requests for credentials have come in from the mainstream media. Of course, theyll go and film in the residential areas that havent been rebuilt, but theyll also see the tourist areas for themselves. Its a watershed anniversary. People are now ready to accept that they can return to New Orleans. Everyone has had a year to get over the storm. They can exhale now.

Perry finished the last spoonful of soup.

The fourth will occur on Sept. 25, when Monday Night Football takes place at the Superdome (the Atlanta Falcons vs. the New Orleans Saints). All the world will see that those images from a year ago at the Superdome have been replaced by people enjoying themselves. Enjoying themselves at the Superdome.

"  "  "

Hurkey closed his eyes, fingered a chicken bone, put it in his hand and touched his fist to his heart a couple of times.

New Orleans is going to be beautiful, he said. Better than ever. Because people all around the world love this city, care about this city.

"  "  "

I told Perry I had been walking around the French Quarter and, yes, it was intact, but that alone didnt appear to erase Katrinas impact. Everyone I had spoken with from New Orleans   --   people who typically have a lot of contact with tourists --  sooner or later began talking about the storm. It started with the taxi driver from the airport. And, I noted, its a fairly long drive from the airport to the French Quarter.

Thats fine, Perry said. Theyre not going to pretend everythings OK in their lives if it isnt. It is different now. But theres a sense of shared experience among the people who have stayed. The ones who have remained are so committed to this city. They love New Orleans. And theyre the ones visitors are going to encounter.

"  "  "

Hurkey finished reading the bones but left his eyes closed and continued talking. After that storm came through, I stood and threw beads down to the people in the water, the police, the SWAT teams, the National Guard. Because they always knew that this is what happens, this is what you get in New Orleans, that people you dont even know throw beads to you. I wanted to make sure they got that.

"  "  "

Are there enough people left, I asked Perry, for tourist businesses to be staffed properly?

There is an issue with staffing, he acknowledged. But levels are now at a point where any weaknesses are not visible to the front of the house, to the guest. Weve got a real surprise in our pocket [with travel and tourism]. It has lifted the hearts of everyone in the city. We were there leading the recovery from the beginning, feeding and housing the first responders. And we continue to lead it when thousands of visitors head home, saying what a great city this is.

I asked him for a more specific prediction about when travel and tourism will come back.

The meetings and conventions business is essential to us, he said. We lost $3 billion in immediate cancellations after the storm. There was uncertainty.

In 2006, we will be at 46% of the annual number of meetings we had before the storm. Bookings for the first and the fourth quarter of 07 are already very strong; the first quarter will be somewhere [around 85%], and the final quarter is already at 90% of pre-Katrina bookings. We expect to be at 100% by 2008.

"  "  "

Hurkey opened his eyes. Next month, on the first full moon, fill your bathtub and put in three tablespoons of sugar. Take a bath, and get out of the tub backwards. It will sweeten your life.

He seemed to have finished. I stood up.

Do one more thing, will you? he asked. Say a prayer for me.

"  "  "

Perry did not ask me to say a prayer for him, but he did have a request: Let Travel Weekly readers know that New Orleans is ready for anyone they might send his way.

Ill add that recommending New Orleans right now will likely generate gratitude from clients in a measure equivalent to that received by a stockbroker who had recommended buying shares of Apple when it seemed down and out. 

In New Orleans right now, you can get a table at Galatoires, K-Pauls, Emerils and Cafe du Monde with only a short (if any) wait. You dont have to worry about getting one of the 25 first-come, first-serve slots each morning for the free National Park Service tour of the French Quarter.

You can get outstanding deals on rooms. (I stayed last week in a Riverview Suite at the Hotel Monteleone for $149 a night.)

There are no lines at the aquarium. You can easily get a seat at the blackjack and poker tables in the casinos. You can even get into Preservation Hall without an hours-long wait, though youll still have to tip a little extra to get the Jazz Band to play When the Saints Go Marching In.

In other words --  with all due respect to Hurkey -- there are many, many ways to make life sweeter. 


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